July 13, Saturday
“I hope this works.”
I stick the backpacking parking permit for both truck and trailer on the dash of Bertha and then make sure all doors are locked and windows are closed. When choosing this hike in the backcountry ranger’s office yesterday, I got permission to leave the teardrop at the trailhead overnight – which is supposedly legal in this case as long as you don’t camp in it. But we’re not parked at Blacktail Creek trailhead proper. We’re parking in the horse trailer area across the road next to the outhouse, and there are signs all over saying “horse trailer parking only”. Hopefully our little backpacking slip saves us. At least there are no equestrians out right now and we’re not taking space away from the intended users.
Julie and I shoulder our packs and get started across the open green plains that make up much of the northern range of Yellowstone. This trailhead is in an area called Hellroaring Canyon, located between Mammoth and Tower Junction. The elevation here is lower than other parts of the park and the soil composition is different. Which adds up to a very different look to the landscape. You can see for miles across large valleys to snow-tipped mountains decked in stands of spruce and fir trees.
Today we’re hiking to backcountry site 1A2, only 2.4 miles away and a relatively flat hike.
Both of which sound pretty good after the steep trek last trip down to the bottom of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. The trail starts by dipping down into a low area with a pond, where water birds glide between reeds. And then climbs up into gentle rolling hills where wildflowers run rampant. Yellows and purples dominate, with white, orange, and pink also making their presence known.
It’s warmer down here in the valley and there are few trees to hide from the sun. The temperature keeps the mosquitoes at bay, and instead we have biting flies to deal with. But just like with the mosquitoes, as long as you keep moving they aren’t too bad. They particularly enjoy hanging out near water sources, like this little creek that we cross over and then follow upstream.
Some hikes you do more for the destination, some hikes you do more for the journey.
I love having a hike be good for both of course, but it always leans one way or another. The last backpacking trip was definitely more about the destination. This one is more about the journey. Because we don’t have far to go there is no hurry, and Julie and I stop to take photos frequently. There is only the one campsite along this fork of the trail, and we see no one after the start.
We arrive at 1A2 with plenty of daylight to spare. It’s a pretty spot, on the edge of a mature stand of conifers with plenty of space to set up in and a small creek for our private water source. A large collection of elk antlers are gathered at the site, proof that there is wildlife around even though we haven’t seen anything larger than a ground squirrel.
We set up camp and then cook dinner using the Jetboil borrowed from Julie’s dad.
Clouds build early in the evening and in the openness it’s easy to see that there’s rain around, but it all misses us, and instead we get a pretty cloud display as the sun goes down. Julie and I sit out and watch the sky in silence, it’s one of those serene moments that make me so happy to be alive.
The next morning we hike out early, hoping to land a spot at Pebble Creek Campground before it fills (which by some luck, we do). Bertha and Tribble are just as I’d left then the day before and no rangers have left a ticket. Success.
July 19, Friday
For those who get the impression that my life as a nomad is all sunshine and rainbows, allow me to present Exhibit A: today’s hike.
The day starts well enough. Julie and I wake up and then load the truck with our gear and I lock up the teardrop, which this time is being left at a boondocking spot outside Grand Tetons National Park.
This third and final backpacking trip is the trip we arranged first, the reservation we made for Shoshone Lake area when we first arrived in Yellowstone early this month. It’s in the southern part of the park, and there is one free camping area located in the national forest between Yellowstone and Tetons. But when Julie and I arrived yesterday afternoon, it was completely full as far as I could drive Bertha and Tribble safely, and so we were forced to go farther south and boondock outside the Tetons.
Which isn’t innately bad. In fact, it’s pretty beautiful boondocking with the Tetons outside your window.
But it’s about two hours away from our trailhead. And that doesn’t take into account the time we spend eating a good lunch at Grant Village along the way. Still, we got an early start and after eating at Grant, I point Bertha’s nose west towards Old Faithful, and about halfway between the two we arrive at Lone Star Geyser trailhead area.
And then I realize I’ve forgotten my sleeping pad.
That’s the foam thing that goes under my sleeping bag and provides insulation and cushion from the cold, hard ground. It’s pretty much a requirement in backpacking, there’s no way I can sleep without it.
Julie and I discuss the options.
It’s 12:30 pm now and the pad is inside the teardrop, two hours away. If we go back for it, it’ll be 4:30 pm when we start hiking which is a late start. It’s 6.3 miles to tonight’s campsite, 8G1.
We could forget today’s campsite and try to get to tomorrow night’s campsite 8R5 tomorrow, but that would be an 8.7 mile hike and would limit the amount of time we’d have to explore the geyser basin.
We could scratch the hike altogether and be out about $22 each and spend more time in the Tetons.
Julie could start hiking now while I go back for the sleeping pad, and we’d meet at our site in the evening. But solo hiking is risky in grizzly country, plus there’d be no way to communicate with each other since there’s no cell signal in this area of the park.
We decide to go back for the sleeping pad together.
Three hours and fifty minutes later, we’re back at the trailhead. The sun is lower in the sky and there’s a sense of urgency to our preparations. Having to hike, set up camp, or cook in the dark wouldn’t be much fun. It’ll be a stretch, but we juuuust might be able to get all those tasks done before last light, if we’re quick enough.
So we put on the speed, breezing past Lone Star Geyser without pause. Not far beyond it I spot a moose in a meadow, but there’s no time to stop and gawk. In fact, I don’t stop for photos at all this day.
Well, almost no photos.
It’s a pretty flat hike, with one gradual uphill area leading to a pass. Nothing strenuous, hardly worth the mention. But partway up it, I feel like I have a pebble caught in my shoe.
Here I should pause and explain my shoe situation. My last pair of tennis shoes came with me to Costa Rica and didn’t make it back. Rainy season mud combined with animal excrement from enclosure cleaning made them unsalvageable. On the hike to the bottom of the Canyon, I actually wore the $20 Walmart work boots I used while work-camping the beet harvest. In decades past, there was little difference between work boots and hiking boots, so it really isn’t as outlandish an idea as it might sound at first.
But I’ve never liked shoes with ankle support, they feel too confining.
Hence why I usually just hike in tennis shoes. Since the trip to the bottom of Canyon was so steep, I was having to flex my ankle a lot to keep my feet level with the ground, and eventually the back of the work boot biting into the back of my heel from so much flexing made it hurt quite a bit.
So on the north range hike, I actually wore my new hiking sandals which I’d bought in Bozeman before arriving in Yellowstone. I love walking in sandals, I’ve done a lot of accidental hiking in sandals not meant for it before, so I finally splurged and got a pair.
Anyway, I’d been wearing the new sandals on most of the boardwalk and front country hiking Julie and I have been doing in Yellowstone, and had no problem with the short hike at Hellroaring Canyon.
But this isn’t a regular hike for me. This is 6.3 miles of forced marching with no pause.
I stop and use my finger and swipe some grit from my sandal. My feet are damp with sweat from exertion. A few steps more, and the stuck- pebble feeling is back. Something’s off. I swipe at the bottom of my foot again, and feel the skin of my foot move.
“Shit.” Actually, I’m not sure if I say that aloud, but that’s what I’m thinking. I have a popped blister, and it’s a pretty big one in a pretty unfortunate spot. Aren’t blisters suppose to hurt? My foot hasn’t hurt at all. I’ve actually never gotten a blister from shoes before, and I’m not exactly sure what it’s suppose to feel like. But everyone says they’re painful. It sure looks like it should be painful.
Julie pulls out the first aid kit.
Cleaning it takes some effort since hiking in sandals = dirty feet. After that we apply moleskin, a type of bandage/bandaid made specifically for blisters. But how well will it stick when my feet are in sandals and exposed to the elements?
It doesn’t happen right away, but soon enough the blister starts to hurt. My pace slows, but the lowering sun keeps me hobbling along as fast as I can.
I can’t believe it.
We arrive at site 8G1 around 7:50 pm. Given the time of year and how far north Yellowstone is, we have a solid hour of light left to set up camp and cook. We did 6.3 miles in 3.5 hours, so 1.8 miles per hour. That’s the fastest backpacking speed I’ve ever managed, and that with the foot situation.
As with all backcountry sites in Yellowstone, a bear pole is provided to hang up food, garbage, and other smelly things. Julie and I can’t help but notice that one of the trees holding the pole up has sets of vertical gouges in it – a bear tried to climb up to the pole at some point. But the claw marks don’t reach all the way up to the pole, so I guess that’s something?
We heat up dinner and watch the woods more carefully. And as the sun sets I laugh at all the mosquitoes that land on my pants and are unable to bite me through them.
Only 2.4 miles to tonight’s camp, hooray! Julie and I eat breakfast and break camp, continuing south along the Howard Eaton trail towards Shoshone Lake. Walking doesn’t feel great, but it could be worse.
For a while the trail follows a stream which makes for an enjoyable view. But then the trail crosses it, and there’s no bridge to do so without getting wet.
I roll up my pants legs and wade through with my sandals on.
The water is very cold, but it does have the benefit of cleaning my feet a bit. Of course, the bandage adhesive fails and needs reapplying on the other side. There’s some concern over whether there will be enough supplies to continue covering my blister for the rest of the hike. It’ll probably be okay, but I do my best to stay off the muddy and wet parts of the trail, of which there’s more of today.
Before long we come to a fork, and turn left onto North Shoshone Trail. It isn’t much farther to our site, 8R5.
This site is the reason we had to reserve this trip in advance. It’s right on the water and no more than a mile from Shoshone Geyser Basin. Even the pit toilet here has a water view.
But we don’t stay long, there’s a geyser basin to explore!
And boy is it nice. By this point I’m quite familiar with all the hydrothermal features in the front country of Yellowstone, having seen them all several times. They’re very cool, but they’ve lost that exciting newness factor.
How sweet it is to come to a park I’ve spent so much time at, and see completely new things.
The trail is much less formal than the front country basin walks. It’s parked dirt, and at times passes very close to the features.
And there’s no crowds. A family of four who came across the lake by canoe are here, and that’s it. Otherwise just us, and the beauty of nature.
The geyser field is crossed by a stream, and some of the features are right along its shore.
None of the features are labeled, although from literature I’ve seen, some of them do have names.
Three of the four types of hydrothermal features are present here: hot springs, geysers, and fumeroles. Mud pots are absent (at least from what I can see on the trail), although there are small cloudy springs that aren’t too far off.
My favorite feature is this geyser, which erupts about once a minute to a height of five to eight feet. The size of the cone suggests that it’s older and has been active for quite a while. To add to the photographic beauty, there’s a hot spring at its base.
If you decide to backpack or boat out here to visit Shoshone Geyser Basin, I recommend giving yourself at least an hour to mosey around. Julie and I take about two hours, including a snack break.
I’m glad there’s less walking today, because the longer I’m on it, the more my foot hurts. Coming back from the geyser basin, Julie and I stop at the lake side to sit for a while, and then we continue back to camp to relax the rest of the day.
“Becky, wake up. There’s a bear outside.”
Actually I’m not sure if those are the exact words Julie says, because I’m still mostly asleep, but that’s the gist of what’s said. But Julie’s voice doesn’t sound too concerned, so I infer that the bear is not about to storm our tent. It’s still early in the morning and I’m tired, I never sleep great when backpacking. And it’s cold enough out that staying cocooned in my nice warm sleeping bag sounds like a better idea. So I say something to the effect of “That’s nice.”, and go back to sleep.
This isn’t the first time Julie and I have had an interaction like this.
Many years ago, the two of us slept in the back of her car in a truck stop parking lot while on a trip to a renaissance festival. She woke me up in the middle of the night to say something like “Becky, wake up. There’s a man with an ax outside.” And I thought, well, he doesn’t seem to be bothering us. So I said “That’s nice, go back to sleep.” And did the same myself.
Actually, it was a person with a bat who was smashing up the vehicle of someone who worked there – a personal grudge. But that’s another story.
So anyway, I missed the bear.
When I wake up later, Julie tells me about it. It was doing normal bear things, turning over rocks and logs looking for food and was ignoring the tent. She could see that it was brown, but through the trees it was hard to tell for sure if it was a grizzly, or a brown black bear.
With some trepidation, we exit the tent and walk over to the bear pole where our food was hanging. There’s no sign that the bear was over there.
We have breakfast by the lake again, which is very still and glassy this morning. Because the water is so clear, we can see all the rocks in the bottom and all the small aquatic life moving around.
But we don’t linger. Before long, we have everything packed up and are back on the trail.
From here on out, everything is retracing our steps. We go back over the stream crossing, and pass our site from the first night. Our reservation is for OA2, very close to Lone Star Geyser and not terribly far from the trailhead. The original idea was that we can camp there, and then tomorrow morning wait at Lone Star as long as necessary to see it erupt, before hiking the rest of the way out. I’ve seen Lone Star before, but of course Julie has not.
But from the start I’m contemplating just hiking the full 8.7 miles out today and getting back to the camper. My foot hurts, there’s nothing ahead that I haven’t seen before, and I can’t help but wonder how my camper is doing, now left alone for two nights in a popular boondocking area. I discuss the possibility with Julie. She has the most to lose, having never seen Lone Star erupt before.
There’s time to stop for photos, like this cute lilly pad choked creek. Sadly we see no moose this time, but we do spy Canada Geese on several occasions, hanging out near water.
We arrive at OA2 at lunchtime. This site is set in a clearing surrounded by pine forest, with a stream running behind it. We’re immediately set upon by mosquitoes, and this at the middle of the day.
After eating we discuss things and decide to hike out today.
Alas, Lone Star is showing no sign of erupting in the near future when we pass by. But Julie is content with all the geysers she’s already seen. Cutting this trip short by a day means we get a little more time to see Grand Tetons. The rest of the hike finishes in a blur brought on by exhaustion.
Later, driving back to camp with the A/C blasting, I review how this trip went. Does it feel like “cheating” or a weakness of character that we didn’t do the last night? No, not really. That’s the beauty of understanding that most plans don’t have to be set in stone. We were free to make a better choice based on the circumstances – having a sore foot and a buggy site with a mediocre view at best. In fact I’m proud of myself for hiking that many miles as quickly as I did.
And thus ends the Great Yellowstone Backpacking Adventure.
Yay! What fun! Okay, time for a nap.
Related Yellowstone Posts:
- Tips for Visiting Yellowstone – My best advice to get the most out of your Yellowstone trip!
- 100 Mile Hiking Club – A collection of all the day hikes I’ve done in Yellowstone from most to least recent, go back to the end of page 2 for the first post which explains more
- Working at National Parks for RVers – Can’t get enough Yellowstone? You can work and live there for a summer!
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